Divorce and looking after your mental health: five lessons from women who’ve been there
I’ve said this hundreds of times before: divorce is one of the most stressful life experiences you’ll ever undertake. It’s second only to the death of a spouse or child. It’s heavy, difficult and daunting. For most people you’ll find it has an impact on your mental health. And if you’re going into divorce with existing mental health struggles, it’s absolutely vital to look after yourself.
On this week’s blog I draw on the wisdom of women who’ve been there: women who have gone through their divorce while their mental health has been poor. A huge thank you to each and every one of them for being generous enough to share their reflections and experiences. This is a summary of their lessons.
Prepare as much as you can
Get as much information and advice beforehand. I was in the dark about so much.
If you are making the decision to leave, the timing is in your hands (unless you or your children are in danger: if that’s the case get out as soon as you can. Your safety is the absolute priority. Women’s Aid has a wealth of helpful information).
Do not be rushed into leaving. If you have other huge life events happening, it’s fine to leave your divorce on the back burner until it feels more manageable. Don’t use this as an invitation to endlessly procrastinate about divorce though – that won’t do your mental health or your self-worth any favours. You’ll know whether a delay is sensible or not.
So much of getting divorce ready can happen privately and quietly, before you even broach the subject with your spouse. Read this blog (use the search function to find the topics you really need, such as understanding the process, or dealing with high conflict). Listen to my Six Minute Divorce podcast. Read the government webpages on the process. Buy How To Be A Lady Who Leaves, which takes you through everything you need to think about in advance.
Remember, divorce is a marathon, not a sprint. It will take time. Even if there are no complicated negotiations with your ex-spouse the divorce system stipulates a 20 week period of reflection before the conditional order (formerly decree nisi) is granted. This is a long haul. If you can enter into it as prepared as possible, you set yourself up better for staying the course.
Get the foundations right
Eat well, exercise, get fresh air and make time for yourself
It’s easy to leave your own care needs behind. Especially when you’re feeling stressed or unwell – taking time to each well or exercise becomes yet another thing on the to do list. And no-one is claiming that all mental health problems can be eased with a walk or getting your 5-a-day.
But do as much as possible to get the basics right; it provides a stronger foundation for everything else. Try to get enough sleep. That can be hard if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety: you might have irregular and insufficient sleep patterns. But do what you can to set yourself up for rest.
Getting medical attention can be part of the foundations. If you recognise that you are struggling, talk to your GP. Seek the therapy and/or medication you need. All of this will be beneficial in helping you face the rollercoaster of divorce.
Tap into any support available
I would say to people divorcing not to be afraid of asking for what they need. This is an emergency time!
This quote from one of my clients sums it up! This is an emergency time – in fact it’s a double emergency. Divorce itself is a strain and a burden. Coping with mental health problems is a strain and a burden. Both at the same time can be unbearable. So get the help you need.
What does that mean though?
As I’ve said, part of it is about seeking the medical and therapeutic help you need to support your mental health. There is absolutely no shame in recognising that you are struggling and asking for help. It’s one of the bravest, strongest moves you can make. And it can be an absolute game changer in terms of enabling you to move forward with your divorce.
It’s also about letting people in your world know what you are experiencing, and how they can help. Ask trusted friends and family for support, and be clear about what you do and don’t want and need from them (you can read more about the dos and don’ts of enlisting friends here).
Let your work know what’s going on. It may be that your mental health condition is considered a disability, in which case you are entitled to special protections under law. Even if that’s not the case, mental health awareness is on the up in workplaces, and managers are there to support you. The mental health charity Mind has advice on how to approach discussing your mental health needs with your employer. They suggest thinking in advance about what would be helpful, so your employer is better equipped to make adjustments. You can read more from Mind here.
Make peace with the legal system as much as you can
The courts are busy and it can take years
It’s not unusual for clients to tell me they feel the system is broken, or at least straining. And I understand why some cases feel like that.
No fault divorce is a move in the right direction. If you are applying for divorce now you no longer have to provide a reason, or wait two years (or more). Wanting to leave is reason enough, and this takes a lot of the emotional heat out of arguing the rights and wrongs of it all.
Sometimes things won’t be fair. It may be that your ex-spouse is playing games. It may be that CAFCASS has misunderstood or misrepresented your family’s case. You can torment yourself with all the ways things might or do go wrong. But that won’t help you. The key is to recognise the reality of your situation, and decide how to work with, rather than against it. That doesn’t mean just rolling over and accepting bad decisions, or demands from your soon-to-be-ex. But it does mean picking your battles, and setting your sights on what truly matters to you.
There are a number of things that aren’t ideal about the system. But, unfortunately, this probably isn’t the time for you to start a personal crusade for change. You have limited time and resources, and you need to focus on your health and your divorce reality as it is right now. If you would like to support a move towards better divorce, Resolution promotes constructive separation and divorce and has a number of campaigns. And Women’s Aid campaigns for the rights of those who have suffered domestic abuse.
Find your people
I think my biggest support was the Absolute Academy and Emma Heptonstall as I could offload and people really understood where I was coming from. Sometimes I got good information and advice. Other times empathy.
Emma and the AA support group is ESSENTIAL, I do not think I would stay sane without them.
It was so gratifying to hear this from my clients. This is exactly what The Absolute Academy is for: surrounding yourself with support, and getting the information you need, when you need it. Divorce is stressful enough. Having a community around you can make all the difference.
I am here to help you. I want you to know that however hard things are at the moment, you are equal to it. You will get through this, and the future will be brighter.
Come and join us in The Absolute Academy today.